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Written by Discovery News   

Herbal Wines Healed Ancient Egyptians

Egyptian AmphoraDiscovery News (14 April 2009) —  A spoonful of sugar may help the medicine to go down, but wine worked even better for the ancient Egyptians, who used to doctor their alcoholic beverages with medicinal herbs and other ingredients, according to a new study.  The oldest of the recently analyzed herbal wines dates to 3150 B.C. Since early medical papyri document the purported health benefits of some of the wine's ingredients, the discovery provides the first direct chemical evidence for wine with organic medical additives.

"The ancient Egyptians settled on adding herbs and other ingredients that had marked medicinal effects, probably just based on observational trial and error," Patrick McGovern, lead author of the paper, told Discovery News.

"Of course superstitions crept in too, such as when they would throw in a root because it resembled a certain body part, but we think there was some medical truth behind a lot of their wine additives," continued McGovern, an archaeochemist at the University of Pennsylvania Museum.

He and colleagues Armen Mirzoian and Gretchen Hall chemically analyzed residues found inside a jar excavated from the tomb of one of Egypt's first pharaohs, Scorpion I. They also conducted chemical tests on a later amphora, dating to the 4the to 6th centuries A.D., from Gebel Adda in southern Egypt.

According to a paper published in the latest Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, both containers tested positive for wine with medicinal additives.  The scientists determined Scorpion I's drink consisted of grape wine to which a sliced fig had been added, probably to start and sustain the fermentation process, while also adding flavor and sweetness. Terebinth, a tree resin known now for having antioxidant properties, was also found within a yellowish flaky residue scraped from the jar, which was decorated with swirling red paint "tiger stripes."  While McGovern and his team aren't yet certain what herbs were in the drink, since many plants share similar chemical components, they suspect mint, coriander, savory, senna and sage were likely candidates.

The researchers are confident, however, that the second, more recent Egyptian wine contained pine resin and rosemary. A previous study determined that an early beer-like fermented emmer wheat barley beverage from Spain contained rosemary, along with mint and thyme. All of these ingredients and more were outlined in Egyptian medical papyri dating to 1850 B.C.

McGovern said the resin and herbal ingredients probably served three primary functions.  "They helped to preserve the wines, while also adding flavor and medical benefits," he said, explaining that the last two frequently went together, since flavor was, and still is, often linked to health effects.  "Bitter flavors in nature can signal danger, but they can also sometimes have powerful medicinal properties," he added.

The new findings could explain the presence of herb and tree resin-flavored foods and drinks from the ancient world found elsewhere.  For example, a 2,400-year-old Greek shipwreck recently yielded both a retsina-type wine, flavored and preserved with tree resin, and a salad-dressing type oil infused with so much antioxidant-promoting oregano that the mixture remained largely preserved over the millennia.

"Maybe we can even go back to the amphorae, jars and cooking pots previously excavated and now sitting in museum storerooms around the world and ask new questions of each artifact," said researcher Brendan Foley of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, who worked on the Greek shipwreck project.

McGovern next hopes to determine which ingredients found in fermented beverages from the ancient world possess actual medical benefits. At present, his team is focusing on artesunate, a wormwood derivative, found in 3,000-year-old Chinese rice wine. v

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